Restaurant Review: Gunk Haus
A recently opened German restaurant offers craft beers, stick-to-the-ribs Bavarian favorites — and dramatic mountain views
A bit of Bavaria: Traditional German fare — including pretzel and obatzda (a cheese spread made with Camembert, Gorgonzola, beer, and spices) — comes to Ulster County
Photographs by Jennifer May
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You’ve got to hand it to a pair of young restaurateurs who open a German restaurant in an iffy economy and then call it “Gunk Haus.” Okay, they chose the name because the place has wonderful views of the Gunks, which is what rock climbers call the Shawangunk Ridge. But “gunk” doesn’t have happy associations in the food world. Add to that the bum rap that German cuisine suffers from anyway, and you’re pushing your luck.
“Everyone tried to talk us out of the name,” Chef Elizabeth Steckel says cheerfully, pointing out that “gunk” means nothing to her Bavarian hubby and partner, Dirk Schalle. “But we thought it shows we don’t take ourselves too seriously — this isn’t a stuffy, uptight place. And hopefully it’s a name you don’t forget.”
A couple of years back, Steckel (who was working at National Geographic magazine) and Schalle (a software engineer) wearied of their desk jobs in Washington, D.C. and decided to launch a restaurant in the Hudson Valley, which they’d fallen in love with during visits. They spent two and a half years renovating the old Hollywood Bar in Highland, a circa 1830s building whose colorful past included periods as a boarding house, an Italian eatery, and a Jamaican reggae club. The couple stripped out the dropped ceilings, exposed the old beams, and added paneling and lime-plaster walls. The result is a cross between a classic German beer hall and a Hudson Valley barn. In Bavarian style, the roomy bar has a communal table rather than bar stools (“Dirk was adamant,” Steckel remarks). In the dining room, two more communal tables occupy the middle of the floor with others arranged around them. Lights are low, and the atmosphere is casual and easygoing.
Owners Elizabeth Steckel and Dirk Schalle indulge in two of the eatery’s craft-brewed beers
Steckel, who is German by way of Detroit, put herself through school working in restaurants and adopted the role of chef; Schalle, clad in embroidered lederhosen, works the front of the house and sets the friendly tone that the rest of the staff emulates. Since opening on Memorial Day weekend, things have been surprisingly busy, Steckel says, considering the plan was to ramp up gradually.
The menu is simple and short. You’ll find traditional choices (wursts, sauerbraten, schnitzels and such), but Steckel adds modern embellishments, and she’s serious about using fresh, local produce, which influences the menu’s daily tweaks. Schalle is the biermeister, and what he’s serious about is pairing the food to a rotating list of brews from craft breweries like Smuttynose, Keegan, Flying Dog, and Left Hand. (I really enjoyed the Flying Dog Dogtoberfest, a spicy, malty, German-style lager.) Beers are served in the appropriate glass or stein. If you’re not a beer lover, you can choose from eight wines and a cider, all local.